For most students, college is a time to learn. And for some, the subject is debt. Not the debt you study in an economics class but credit card debt. And lots of it.
Credit cards are easy to get, easy to use, and -- as many find out the hard way -- easy to abuse.
"The credit card companies lure you in," said Robert Watts, 25, a recent Towson University graduate who was enticed to fill out an application on campus by a free Snickers bar.
While countless stories exist about college students racking up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, the pervasiveness of the problem on Maryland campuses is unknown.
Aware that credit card debt can have severe financial consequences for students, some Maryland colleges have placed restrictions on the marketing of cards on campus.
Western Maryland College, Towson University and the University Maryland, Baltimore County limit the number of card vendors who may market cards on campus.
WMC, for instance, allows vendors to set up tables in the student union, and they must have the college bookstore or a campus organization as a sponsor, said Mitchell Alexander, director of the college activities office.
College sponsors receive a fee, often based on the number of approved credit card applications, he said. Vendors are allowed to set up six times a year.
At UMBC, credit card representatives are allowed to market cards in the student union during a one-week period at the beginning of each semester, said George Preisinger, director of the university center. The companies are charged a daily fee.
Credit card companies often target students in less conspicuous ways, said Kim Martins, 20, a WMC junior.
"When I go into the bookstore and buy something, all these little papers are in the bottom of the bag," she said.
They include credit card applications. Once they have cards, students say using them is as easy as saying "charge it."
"It's convenient," Martins said. "I don't have to worry about going to the bank to get money all the time."
Overusing a credit card has its consequences.
Harris Singer, a WMC junior who once had four cards, said he "charged every credit card up to the max and even beyond." His debt reached $8,500 before he canceled his cards.
"I am not ashamed to admit it," Singer said. "I am ashamed that I did it."
Singer, 20, has found paying off his debt to be a slow process. He owes about $7,300.
"For the past three years all I have done is pay off credit cards," he said.
Ethan Seidel, WMC vice president of administration and finance and a professor of economics and business, advises students to use credit cards "for a short-term, interest-free loan."
And, if at all possible, students should avoid paying finance charges by paying the bill on time, he said.
Many credit card companies try to educate students about credit. American Express, for instance, makes efforts to inform students about debt, interest and other financial information, said Monica Beaupre, a company spokeswoman.
"When students apply, we make available a wide array of brochures, pamphlets so that we are sure they are aware of how to stay in good credit," she said.
Pub Date: 1/05/98